Rainbow: a track from Emilie Simon’s new album, The Big Machine
A few weeks ago I berated PRs who use the “New Kate Bush” tag to try and snatch a bit of space for the latest quirky singer in a niche that, despite the heralding of numerous would-bes, has only ever really been occupied by one talent. Here, for one night only, I’ll eat my words.
Emilie Simon, a French electro-pop singer and composer (or “sonic auteur” according to the slightly pretentious blurb) with a strong track record in her home country, is already a cult figure in her adopted hometown of New York. Her new album, The Big Machine, a conceptual tribute to the city, is about to hit the UK on a tide of gathering interest. And it doesn’t take more than a couple of spins for the aptness of the Bush comparison to make itself abundantly clear.
At times, the extraordinary swoops and intervals of Simon’s vocals are so reminiscent of Bush’s early work, the timbre so similar, that for a second, it’s like being transported back 30 years to a time when the idiosyncratic masterpieces of the UK’s most singular female singer-songwriter carved such a significant path through contemporary pop. But the comparison works – and is a tribute to both women – because once the frisson has passed, it’s quite clear that Simon is a formidable and unique talent in her own right.
Not for her the metaphysical expeditions across the inner landscape of Bush’s child-woman, with their obscure literary and philosophical references. Simon’s lyrics are emphatically 21st-centry urban, rooted in accomplished, synthesised beats.
She’s a one-woman electro-band, a pioneer of “The Arm” – a rather startling, customised sleeve that gives her complete control over her musical gadgets and voice manipulation technology and which, in live performance, allows her to replicate the complex, symphonic qualities of her recordings.
Brick by brick this Brooklyn resident constructs a musical picture of an iconic city that obviously has her firmly in its grasp. Simon’s is a different kind of skyline, far removed from the art deco canyons or concrete jungle conjured by the likes of Gershwin and Bernstein.
The album is full of arresting juxtapositions: the near cacophony of the urgent brassy intro to “Rainbow” setting up the first appearance of Simon’s deceptively girlish voice; the retro electronica – almost Thompson Twin-like – of the hypnotic “Dreamland”; the brilliant, glittering vocals of “Nothing to do With You” (the most Bush-like of all the tracks, and for me, the album’s standout number, along with “Closer”); the brooding promise of adventure in “Chinatown”.
Moods shift in the flicker of a neon light as Simon subtlely works the technology to give her voice a new resonance. It’s great to hear a genuinely different sound cutting through the increasingly homogenised legions of young female singer songwriters.